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  Middle East & Africa
Arab States Must Pull Together
By Patrick Seale
A meeting of Arab League is underway recently.

A remarkable feature of the current scene is the failure of Arab governments to respond vigorously and collectively to international developments, even when they are of major significance for all of them.

Senior Arab officials interviewed for this article (but who wish to remain anonymous) confirm the endemic inability of Arab states to act together has led to a paralysis of Arab diplomacy and, more generally, to the discredit of the whole Arab state system.

A recent example was the November 26 meeting of the Arab League in Cairo, summoned to promote reconciliation between the Palestinian National Authority and Hamas, but which appears to have had no perceptible outcome.

Inter-Arab relations have long been characterised by rivalries and implacable feuds, which have served to cripple collective action. This is all the more regrettable today when the Arabs need urgently to make their pitch both to president-elect Barack Obama's new American administration and, indeed, to Israel which, in the run up to next February's general elections, is in the throes of a great debate about its relations with the Arab world.

In contrast to the Arabs, the 27-member European Union has drawn up a document putting its views to Obama.

Where is the Arab equivalent of such a document? Where is the blueprint for future Arab-American relations? How do the Arab states expect to be heard if they do not express themselves as a body?

Their silence is having at least two important consequences. First, Arab political impotence has created an opening for Iran and Turkey to fill the vacuum. And secondly, despair at the lack of effective action by Arab governments has driven the Arab 'street' to become increasingly radicalised.

The scandal of what is happening in Gaza is a case in point. The Arab states have issued no collective outcry at Israel's blatant violation of international law - at least none that anyone has heard. They have not used their political or financial muscle to compel the international community to break the siege. No delegation of senor Arab ministers has toured the capital cities of the five permanent members of the Security Council to demand an end to Israel's collective punishment of 1.5 million people.

One or two Arab states have attempted individual action, but to no avail. A Qatari Islamic charity is planning to send a ship to Gaza, but has little hope of it getting through. A Libyan ship, carrying 3,000 tonnes of relief supplies, was intercepted and turned away by the Israeli navy.

But Egypt - constrained by its peace treaty with Israel, enfeebled by its dependence on American aid, terrified of Muslim Brother activism, overwhelmed by internal problems and obsessed by the question of the succession to President Hosni Mubarak's regime - seems wholly incapable of action to relieve the misery of Gaza, on its very borders.

A generation ago, the troika of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria carried some weight in the world. Today, Egypt is - politically, at least, a shadow of its former self, while Saudi-Syrian relations are strained because of the Damascus-Tehran alliance.

Examples are legion of Arab failure to act. Late last month, no fewer than 500 former Israeli generals, diplomats and senior security officials launched a campaign to 'sell' the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Plan to the Israeli public. First launched at an Arab summit in 2002, the Plan offered Israel peace and normal relations with all 22 Arab states in return for withdrawal from Palestinian and Syrian territory seized in 1967.

In a full-page advertisement in the Israeli press, the 500 senior officials, led by Major-General (retired) Danny Rothschild, urged their fellow Israelis not to 'ignore a historic opportunity which a moderate Arab world presents us with.' Rothschild was quoted by the Financial Times on November 27 as saying: 'The Israeli public today needs to see something that will encourage them to finalise a deal with the Palestinians and Syrians.'

How have Arab leaders reacted to this unprecedented Israeli call for peace? Have they accorded it an enthusiastic welcome? Have they suggested a joint meeting to fill out the details of the Peace Plan? Have they vigorously lobbied the new American administration and the European Union in support of the Peace Plan? They appear to have done none of these things.

It is true that Prince Turki Al Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence, has lent his name to a recent report by a UK think-tank, the Oxford Research Group, in support of the Plan. But this is a far cry from the top-level, heavily-publicised collective Arab diplomatic action which the occasion calls for.
Israeli threats

Arab silence is even more deafening when it comes to overt Israeli threats against both Gaza and Lebanon.

Equally, leading Israelis do not hesitate to predict an 'inevitable' new war against Lebanon. Writing in the November issue of Strategic Assessment, the quarterly journal of Israel's Institute of National Security Studies, Major Gen (retired) Giora Eiland, a former national security adviser to Sharon and Olmert, warns the next war will "lead to the elimination of the Lebanese military, the destruction of the national infrastructure, and intense suffering among the population".

Why have the Arab states not publicly denounced this irresponsible war-mongering? It is easy to imagine Israel's outrage - and the international outcry it would solicit - were an official Arab or Iranian journal to write of the 'inevitability' of a war to destroy Israel's national infrastructure. Rarely has it been more important for the Arabs to make their collective voice heard, if the region is to be spared another devastating conflict.

Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.






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